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International Energy Outlook 2021

Release Date: October 6, 2021 Next Release Date: October 2023 IEO Narrative PDF

Liquid fuels remain the largest energy source in the Reference case, but renewable energy use grows to nearly the same level

Renewable energy use is driven by favorable technology costs and government policy, but it does not replace petroleum and other liquid fuels absent future technology breakthroughs or significant policy changes

Figure 1.

Figure 1

In the Reference case, after a period of decline in coal consumption through 2030, consumption of all major fuels grows from 2030 to 2050. Renewable energy consumption more than doubles between 2020 and 2050, and renewable energy consumption nearly equals liquid fuels consumption by 2050. The rise of renewables—which account for 27% of global energy consumption in 2050 in the Reference case—results from falling technology costs and changing government policies, which in turn contribute to the electric power sector using renewable energy sources to meet growing electricity demand.

Coal’s share of global energy use steadily declines through 2050. Coal consumption declines in absolute terms through 2030, in part as a result of low near-term natural gas prices. Policies—such as emissions trading programs in the European Union and South Korea—and slowing investment in coal power plants also play a role in the near-term decline of coal. However, countervailing pressures keep coal in the energy mix through 2050, including the expansion of coal-reliant heavy industry in India, the availability and security of local coal supply in some regions, and the projected growth of coal-fired generating plants in non-OECD Asia to fuel the region’s growing economies.

Although natural gas consumption grows by 31% through the projection period in our Reference case, renewables’ share of energy consumption, which grows from 15% in 2020 to 27% in 2050, limits the share of global energy use fueled by natural gas, which decreases slightly from 24% to 22% over the same period. Lower relative prices of natural gas in the near term as well as the need to provide back-up supply to intermittent renewables are important drivers in natural gas consumption.

Under current laws and regulations in our Reference case, we project growth in liquid fuels consumption to continue at a near constant pace through 2050. As travel increases as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic lessen, the majority of passenger and freight vehicles continue to be fueled by liquid fuel-consuming internal combustion engines (ICEs). Industrial use of petroleum and other liquids, particularly for chemical feedstocks, also increases through the projection period.

Electricity use increases in all end-use sectors and grows faster than total energy consumption

Figure 2.

Figure 2

Despite efficiency gains, worldwide end-use sectors increase energy consumption through 2050. We project demand for electricity to increase across all sectors, outpacing global population growth.

In homes, electricity use grows faster than any other energy sources, accounting for half of all household energy use by 2050 according to our Reference case. Electricity use in commercial buildings also grows. We project over 60% of commercial energy needs will be met by electricity in 2050. As household incomes6 and the service sector grow in the Reference case, standards of living increase and space-cooling technologies (for example, air conditioners) become more prevalent in buildings. As a result, the use of electricity in buildings grows quickly from a relatively large base in 2020, but it grows fastest in the transportation sector.

Petroleum liquids—such as motor gasoline, distillate, and jet fuel—continue to grow and to fulfill most demand for transportation energy over the next 30 years, as the world’s population grows and passenger and freight travel expand. Electricity use, however, starting from a relatively small base, grows almost six times faster than petroleum use over the same period.

Plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs), which include both battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, are the fastest-growing light-duty passenger fleet across OECD and non-OECD countries alike. In the Reference case, 138 internal combustion engine, or conventional, light-duty vehicles (LDVs) are on the road in 2020 for every PEV. By 2050, PEVs make up almost a third of the global light-duty stock. Electricity use grows to account for 5% of global transportation energy consumption by 2050 in the Reference case.

Developing Asia, led by India, drives economic growth in the IEO2021 Reference case as growth in China slows

Figure 3.

Figure 3

Regional economic growth is a key driver of long-term energy consumption. The regions with the fastest-growing economies in the IEO2021 Reference case are non-OECD countries in Asia. India’s growth is greatest, but the WEPS regions7 of Other non-OECD Asia, Africa, China, and Other non-OECD Europe and Eurasia remain leaders in economic growth as well. Although China continues to grow at an average rate equal to Africa and Other non-OECD Europe and Eurasia, its growth notably slows throughout the projection period. Together, these top five growth regions were home to 70% of the world’s population in 2020 and 44% of GDP. By 2050, these shares grow to 73% and 59%, respectively.

Economic growth varies widely among Asian regions in the IEO2021 Reference case. Most notably, the projected GDP growth rate in China slows considerably compared with its growth rate from 2000 to 2010, when GDP increased by an average of over 10% per year. We also project slower economic growth for Japan and South Korea, illustrating the interconnectedness of Asian economies, as the decline in Chinese demand and trade for intermediate and finished goods, in addition to other structural and demographic factors, affects economic growth in these neighboring countries.

Figure 4.

Figure 4

Rapid economic growth in non-OECD countries translates into more energy consumption. Although the Americas retain the largest share of OECD energy use, Asia consumes more than double the amount of energy than all the remaining non-OECD regions combined by 2050.


6Household income is the aggregate net income of all people in a country, also known as personal disposable income.